LeBron sets Lakers on playoff run with limitless possibility

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James didn't respond at first after Dillon Brooks called him old and questioned his abilities early in the Lakers' first-round playoff series with Memphis.

A day after James and the Lakers eliminated Brooks' Grizzlies in dominant fashion, James let Jay-Z speak for him.

The top scorer in NBA history tweeted some particularly pointed lyrics Saturday from Hova's 2006 track, “Trouble.” Among several more profane bars was the phrase: “It's apparent you're staring at a legend.”

Perhaps to everybody except Brooks, James' legend has been fully secure for years. He is working on another chapter this season, and the league is starting to realize there's no telling how far James and his Lakers can take the story of his 20th NBA season.

The Lakers are on a 14-4 roll after finishing off the 51-win Grizzlies in six games. After becoming the first No. 7 seed in the best-of-seven first-round playoff era to win a series, they're on to the second round Tuesday night, where they’ll face the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between Golden State and Sacramento.

“It gets even harder when you move a level up,” James said. “We were able to conquer Level 1, and now we move up.”

After losing their first five games under rookie head coach Darvin Ham, after beginning the season 2-10, after sitting six games under .500 on Valentine's Day, the Lakers have been surging ever since the trade deadline.

Although new additions D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura have contributed impressively, the 38-year-old James has led the charge when healthy while becoming the top scorer in NBA history along the way.

Anthony Davis likely has been their most valuable player on the court in recent weeks, turning in a six-game defensive masterclass with 26 blocked shots against Memphis. But even Davis says the Lakers will go as far as James takes them.

“He just leaves it all out on the floor," Davis said. “A lot of us are exhausted. He's obviously has a little bit more miles on him than all of us probably combined, but we just try to do our part around him to make his job a lot easier (so) he doesn't have to overexert himself the entire game.”

James scored at least 21 points in five of the six games against the Grizz, and he had the first 20-point, 20-rebound performance of his two-decade career in Game 4 — when he also made a difficult layup to force overtime in the final second of regulation.

After a rough Game 5, James brought his best in the clincher, highlighted by a reverse dunk in traffic that would be a stunner for any baller of any age.

“I’m telling you, man, it’s unreal,” said Ham, a Lakers assistant late in Kobe Bryant’s career before moving to Milwaukee’s staff. “Like, Kobe was nothing short of amazing. You know, Giannis (Antetokounmpo). I’ve been around some top-tier, elite top-five NBA talent. But Bron, man, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

While James isn't one of the Lakers' best defensive players, his overall focus and mentality have contributed to their evolution into a dominant defensive team. Los Angeles capably handled Ja Morant's talent while largely shutting down his supporting cast, embodying the defense-first attitude preached by Ham since his arrival.

It's also the mentality that the Lakers had under Frank Vogel during their 2020 championship run, but lost for long stretches of the ensuing two seasons. Defensive domination is much easier with a healthy Davis in the paint, and the oft-injured big man was in top form against Memphis.

“I think he was AD," James said. "I think we all know it, the world knows it, the basketball guys know, the competition knows … how dominant AD is defensively. He was AD. He was spectacular.”

The Lakers' clincher was a laugher thanks to Russell, who scored a career playoff-high 31 points with five 3-pointers.

Russell has a particularly strong bond with the Lakers' home crowd, which cheered him through the difficult first two seasons of his NBA career. The high-scoring guard has been inconsistently effective since returning, but the Lakers are awfully difficult to stop when he’s scoring and distributing the ball at the peak of his skill.

“I think the energy since we made that trade, or made that decision to bring guys here, we've had an energy that was contagious with our group,” Russell said. “That was one thing we could control. We brought our energy to this team, and it trickled down and it was contagious.”

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